Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s pick for transportation secretary, vowed to enforce the president’s executive action on mask-wearing for interstate travel, saying he would work with his counterparts in other areas of government to do so.
“We are prepared to make sure we use all relevant authorities to enforce the president’s executive order to ensure that across every mode of transportation: workers, passengers, commuters are protected,” he said during confirmation hearings Thursday in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The order, which Mr. Biden signed Thursday, specifies travelers must wear masks in airports and on commercial aircraft, trains, public boats including ferries, and inter-city buses as described in Centers for Disease Control guidelines, and is part of the White House’s effort to fight the spread of COVID-19.
The move was met by praise from an organization representing flight attendants, who have complained of the difficulty in ensuring airline passengers wear masks on board.
Sara Nelson, president of Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants at 17 airlines, said the executive order “will provide much needed back up for flight attendants and aviation workers on the frontlines. Masks are vitally important to the health of everyone onboard and an especially necessary safety measure in our workspace where proper social distancing is not an option.”
The union had first called on federal officials to order a mask mandate last April, during the first wave of the pandemic in the U.S. All U.S. airlines have established their own mandatory mask requirements for passengers, and have banned more than 2,700 passengers for violations of mask policies and other disruptive behavior since May. Airlines reported a wave of bans for disruptive behavior after the January 6 riot at the Capitol, leading the Federal Aviation Administration to announce earlier this month it would take legal action against unruly passengers instead of giving them a warning or counseling.
“U.S. airlines have been supportive of a federal mandate as an additional layer of support and welcome today’s executive order, which will strengthen our flight crews’ ability to enforce face covering requirements for the duration of the pandemic,” said Nicholas E. Calio, president and CEO of trade association Airlines for America.
The new executive order also requires international travelers to offer proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test before being allowed into the country, which had been and previously ordered by the CDC, and requires them to comply with other CDC guidelines for international travel, including self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the U.S.
Industry leaders warned the latter could be difficult to enforce.
“We believe a mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce — and unnecessary in light of required testing and the many other protections now in place. In the domestic environment, where there aren’t defined ports of entry for travelers, mandatory testing and other requirements are also impractical and could divert scarce public health resources away from other priorities,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow, who called the testing requirement “key” to reopening international travel.
The move comes ahead of confirmations for Buttigieg and Alejandro Mayorkas, of Mr. Biden’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Transportation Security Administration.